Getting beyond the “every country is unique” mantra

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ImageMoving away from ‘best practice’ thinking has profound implications for development policy work. The craft of policymaking is not simply about delineating the desirable: it is about finding entry points that are both feasible and value-adding. How is this to be done? After all, practitioners desire more guidance than the simple dictum that the answer is ‘country-specific’.

This blog post introduces a dynamic typology (a trajectories framework) to facilitate thinking about the interactions between governance and development policymaking. [A more in-depth introduction is available here; for a more comprehensive discussion, see the paper I co-authored with Francis Fukuyama.] The typology comprises five distinct categories – with each characterized by a distinctive set of governance related opportunities, constraints, and risks.

Category #1: The “founding” political settlement.  ‘Political settlements’ – bargains among elites (and sometimes their non-elite allies as well) that end violent conflict – are key to enabling conflict-affected countries to begin a new chapter in their development histories.

The analysis of “political settlements” is a vast and difficult subject in its own right. Mushtaq Khan’s ongoing work is pathbreaking ; the subject will also be addressed comprehensively  in the World Bank’s forthcoming 2011 World Development Report.  The key point here is simply that the character of this “founding” settlement sets a country along one of two broad trajectories: The resulting political order could be organized around a dominant political party or leader; alternatively, it could be more competitive. Further, within each trajectory the challenges are very different for countries in an early-stage than in the later stages – making for four distinct categories. 

Category #2: Early-stage state dominance incorporates countries where dominant political leadership (perhaps military, perhaps civilian; perhaps organized around a political party, perhaps a charismatic individual) has successfully consolidated its grip on power.

Korea in the 1960s and early 1970s, and contemporary Ethiopia and Rwanda, illustrate this category. In the first flush of authority, there can be a general sense of a country on the move – especially if the leadership has embraced systematically a coherent, and seemingly technically well grounded, strategy for development. However, there are significant risks of reversal – leadership could begin to use its authority for narrowly self-seeking ends, and/or could lose legitimacy (which could range from enthusiastic support to resigned acquiescence) of the broader population.

ImageCategory #3: Later-stage state dominance.  Countries that successfully traverse the earlier-stages of the ‘dominant state’ trajectory will over time increasingly confront a new generation of governance-related challenges.

Success in accelerating economic growth generally will have resulted in a more sophisticated private sector, a growing middle class, and an emerging network of civil society organizations – all of which will be seeking institutions capable of both the impartial resolution of disputes, and the provision of a platform for ‘level-playing-field’ competition. This enhanced social and economic complexity is likely to come into increasing conflict with control-oriented political and state institutions – with the outcome uncertain.  Tunisia’s current uncertainties illustrate the challenge; Korea’s successful transition to democracy since 1987 points towards the opportunity.

Category #4: Early-stage competitive clientelism is likely to be the prevalent pattern in those settings where the initial political settlement centered around a ‘founding’ election.

Commonly, successful founding elections translate into a relatively open political culture. The dilemma, though is that, after the flush of electoral enthusiasm has worn off, institutions capable of supporting continuing competition are unlikely to be in place. The result, as in Bangladesh and Kenya, can be a polity in which the rules of the game are clientelistic – and which teeters, seemingly indefinitely, on the edge of chaos. Interestingly, it turns out that this ‘edge of chaos’ can be compatible with significant economic dynamism. But whether a country can sustain its high-wire act for a sufficiently long time for these gains to be consolidated – or whether the ‘edge of chaos’ is a prelude to  backsliding is uncertain.

Category #5: Later-stage competitive polities can emerge via two distinct routes.  They might emerge out of early stage ‘competitive clientelism (although it is troublingly difficult to find examples in history that have managed a sustained evolution – open throughout – from an early to a  later-stage competitive polity). Alternatively, formerly dominant state polities might become competitive polities via a trajectory shift – a ‘zig-zag’.

The ‘zig-zag’ could proceed relatively smoothly – as in Korea, where ‘later stage state dominance’ evolved fairly seamlessly into a competitive polity. But it could also unfold more discontinuously – as in Indonesia and Thailand, where electoral competition served as a way out of a ‘stuck’ state dominance path. Insofar as the political opening of hitherto dominant state polities unleashes previously suppressed conflicts, the governance challenges are likely to be profound. The result could be an ‘edge of chaos’ set of challenges uncomfortably similar – notwithstanding substantially higher levels of per-capita income to countries in the ‘earlier stage competitive’ category.

Keep in mind that a typology is a conceptual construct. I have no intention to suggest that, by grouping countries into categories, one can summarize who whole of any country’s development evolution. The point is not to replace “one size fits all”, faith-based development prescription, with a simplistic “four sizes fits all” pluralism. As my contribution to the October 2010 Journal of Democracy symposium on democratization and development – “The Case for Principled Agnosticism” – makes clear, we need to keep our minds open. But I am hopeful that the distinctions among the categories are sufficiently vivid that they can help us move beyond the analytical defeatism implied by “every country is unique”. What do you think?


Brian Levy

Professor at SAIS and University of Cape Town

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